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Submitted by AWL on Thu, 31/07/2014 - 00:47

Hi Alex,

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Firstly, thank you for also confronting anti-Semitism on the demo. I am really very glad that you and others joined in with me. I'm also glad that you've read my article in the spirit it was intended - i.e., one of concern for the political health of the Palestine solidarity movement because I want there to be a large, vibrant, assertive, movement in solidarity with the Palestinian cause, in which Jewish people can also participate and feel welcome.

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I'm sure you're right that many of the people who defended the guy did so out of ignorance rather than because they were conscious anti-Semites. As you say, that's why it's necessary to challenge and confront instances of anti-Semitism, and to write and circulate articles like this, and I'm glad you were able to engage with those folks a bit more on Saturday. Your experience, it seems to me, shows why it's worthwhile actually challenging and confronting this stuff when we see it, and hopefully you've helped educate some people in quite a meaningful and direct way.

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(As an aside, though, speaking as a secular-atheist Jew, I'd be wary about seeing too much positivity in the "True Jews" stuff - the implication of that, it seems to me, is that self-proclaimed "Torah True" Jews like e.g. Neturei Karta are okay, but the rest of us are under suspicion. I actually think the way Neturei Karta are fetishised and fawned over in the movement is also hugely problematic, and in a weird way also has some anti-Semitic implications; I'd reccommend my comrade Tom's article about that, here.)

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Your "hunch", about people adopting potentially-anti-Semitic slogans or imagery as some kind of act of defiance against the Israeli state's sometimes-cynical use of accusations of anti-Semitism to attempt to silence their critics, may well be right. But while this may explain it, it doesn't excuse it (not to imply that you were excusing it, of course), and I think we need to delve a bit deeper to explore why anti-Semitic, or potentially anti-Semitic, tropes, images, and political ideas do surface on Palestine solidarity demos. Why is it that anti-Semitic themes and images are seen by anyone as an acceptable form of "defiance"? What are the politics that encourage that? I'll try and go into my thoughts on that a bit later on.

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People like "Placard Man" are probably marginal cranks, and it's tempting to dismiss them on that basis. Frankly, even if they are only that, I'm still in favour of challenging and confronting them - when else do socialists, or progressive people, see instances of racism and respond by saying "oh, they're just a marginal crank, don't make a fuss?" (Alex, I don't think you're saying that, but there is something in the comment from Charli above yours which suggests some of that attitude.) Even marginal instances of racism from "nutters", to use Charli's term, need to be confronted.

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So, Alex, if you're still reading, thanks for confronting "Placard Man" on the demo, and thanks for challenging and engaging with some of the people who backed him up. Thanks for your thoughtful comment above, and hopefully you'll read the rest of this in the same spirit you read my original article.

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Moving on from a direct reply to Alex, I wanted to make some wider points (partially in response to Charli, but also just because I'm thinking things through) about these issues. I actually think to dismiss anti-Semitism in the movement as the sole preserve of "nutters" would be to misidentify the problem. As I pointed out in the article, there is other political imagery which is more widespread (e.g. "Israel = Nazis") which I think also has anti-Semitic implications, even if they're not consciously thought through by the people using it.

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But beyond this, and I realise this is probably more contentious, I think there's a deeper-seated problem. I think some of the fairly widely-accepted political common sense of the movement, while not anti-Semitic in the sense of straightforward anti-Jewish racism, at the very least implies an "exceptionalising" (is that a word? Hopefully it's clear what I mean by it; "making an exception of") attitude to Israel, Israeli-Jews, and, often, because of the quite complex position Israel occupies in the ethno-cultural identity of many (perhaps most) Jews worldwide, to Jews in general.

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I don't mean to imply by this that, because most Jews in the world "support Israel" in some sense (ranging from people who are rabidly-nationalist supporters of its government through to people who despise its government but believe in the existence of an Israeli-Jewish state in some form), any criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic. Even if 100% of the world's Jews were 100% for the war on Gaza, the war would obviously still be wrong and opposition to it wouldn't become anti-Semitic on that basis.

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But I feel the discourse and rhetoric of some Palestine solidarity politics (I'm talking in the first instance about the discourse shaped by the revolutionary left) "exceptionalises" Israel by treating it in a way no other contemporary state is really treated; it is not the only state in the world engaged in a brutal colonial subjugation of another nation, nor is it the only one doing so with US/UK backing and money. The Israeli-Jewish nation, which is a "nation" by any Marxist understanding of the term (in the sense of being a people bound by common identities, language, shared cultural and historical experience, etc., as well, crucially, as being internally class-differentiated) and not just a narrow "settler caste" like the white South Africans or the French in Algeria, is the only nation for whom the left advocates that the principle of national self-determination should not apply.

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Israel's colonial project in Palestine is barbaric and illegitimate, but the discourse of the left, which in many ways shapes the general political culture of the Palestinian solidarity movement goes beyond this, and sees as essentially historically-illegitimate the entire Israeli-Jewish presence in the region, regarding it as an exclusively settler presence, which elides the reality that a substantial Jewish population in historic Palestine was created not by colonial settlers emigrating to exploit "the natives", but by refugees from genocide who often had literally nowhere else to go and who had the doors of many other countries shut in their faces. Israel is a "settler state" in one sense, but in another, it is what Isaac Deutscher called a "life-raft state" for refugees from Nazism.

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Now, none of that in any sense justifies, or mitigates the horror, of the Israeli state's brutalisation of the Palestinians. But I think the elision of that history, and its complete collapsing into narratives of "colonial settlement" (which were only one dynamic in the history of Jewish migration to Palestine and the foundation of the state of Israel) displays, at the very least, an insensitivity towards the specificities of Jewish experience and identity.

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Is it "anti-Semitism"? Not in the sense of conscious anti-Jewish racism, no. But those exceptionalising and ahistorical attitudes do, in my opinion, create a political atmosphere in which opposition to Israel can very easily bleed into more generalised hostility to Jews. I think Charli's anecdote about having to talk people down from an enthusiasm to boycott, or otherwise mobilise against, "Jewish shops" is a good example of that. Because if a politics based on that level of exceptionalisation and ahistorical elision is your starting point, and then you look around you and see the manifest reality that many, perhaps most, Jews do seem to have some degree of support for Israel, even if that support isn't a political support for Israeli government policy, I imagine it doesn't require a massive ideological leap to start thinking that Jews in general - rather than simply "Zionists", or, more accurately, supporters of the Israeli government - are basically fair game. That's not the same as racist hatred of Jews, but I think it is a subtle form of anti-Semitism. In that context, while "Placard Man" himself might remain a crank, there is a certain wider atmosphere in which harder forms of anti-Semitism might, if left unchecked, take root and spread.

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I'm not saying that anyone who wants there to be a single-state solution/settlement in Israel/Palestine is borderline-anti-Semitic. There are versions of single-state formulas which are sensitive to Jewish history/experience, and accept the legitimacy of Israeli-Jewish presence in historic Palestine, or at least the impossibility and undesirability of rewinding it. I think Edward Said held a version of this position, advocating a binational Jewish-Arab state in the whole of historic Palestine. That view is obviously not anti-Semitic, and in fact it's one I have some instinctive sympathy with; I just think it's utopian. But that is not the version of one-state politics which dominates the political terrain of Palestine solidarity in Britain, and certainly not the version that is held by many left groups.

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One might argue, and perhaps understandably so, that this is all "overthinking" things. The vast majority of marchers don't consciously carry in their heads the programmatic perspectives of, say, the SWP on Israel/Palestine. One might also argue that I'm overstating the influence of e.g. the SWP in shaping the culture of the movement, and eliding other elements (e.g. people from Muslim communities, who, given the left's lack of a base in those communities, may never have come in contact with far-left politics.) I have no doubt whatsoever that a large proportion of people on the demo simply when because, on the level of basic human solidarity and compassion, they are outraged and appalled by what an immensely powerful nation is doing to an immiserated and brutalised people, and want to do something active to express their outrage. They're right to do so. And it's probably also worth saying that whenever I've explained our (AWL's) views on Israel/Palestine - for a two-states settlement, for workers' unity, etc. - to "ordinary" folks, from Muslim backgrounds and others, who haven't necessarily been mobilised by the far left, I've very rarely encountered the kind of holy terror one often gets if you tell an SWPer, or someone influenced by them, that you're for two states.

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But I think it's an undeniable fact that the Palestine solidarity movement in the UK as a "political space", so to speak, is hegemonised by e.g. the SWP, and others with a similar perspective (i.e., a particular version of one-state politics based on an elision of Israeli-Jewish history into a solely "colonial settler" narrative, exceptionalisation of Israel, etc.), so to a large extent those perspectives do define what's in the political ether of the movement.

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A large part of the problem, in fact, is that these politics are often not spelled out explicitly, and are indeed subsumed into a general "anti-Israel clamour", to use Charli's phrase, which I think also helps some quite unsavoury politics fester and grow within that "clamour". Less "clamour" and more political clarity would be a big step forward, and would help us really get to the bottom of whether anti-Semitism in the movement is just coming from cranks who can easily be marginalised and driven off, or is at least on some level incubated or enabled by dynamics within a more widespread politics.

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None of this should obscure the central dynamic in Israel/Palestine itself: the colonial subjugation of the Palestinians by the Israeli state. But ultimately, if the Palestine solidarity movement exists to do anything, it's to help end that subjugation. So the questions of how it can be ended, and what might come after it, are of immediate political significance.

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So I guess it comes down to this: Charli says "the most important thing" is "adding to the anti-Israeli clamour." Well, I simply don't agree. I'm a revolutionary socialist; I don't want some politically undifferentiated "anti-Israel clamour", I want a movement of internationalist solidarity with the Palestinians against Israeli occupation, on a political basis that can actually have an impact and hope to advance a better alternative. I do not think the exceptionalising and ahistorical politics which see any expression of Israeli-Jewish self-determination as uniquely reactionary can possibly aid a progressive outcome. A working-class internationalism, sensitive to the specificities of Jewish history, which acknowledges the national rights of both the Israeli-Jewish and the Palestinian-Arab nations, and sees workers' unity as the path to a settlement that can ultimately supersede both "one-state" and "two-state" formulas, perhaps can.

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That's a long post. I've tried to go into a bit of detail because I want to make myself understood. To reiterate, I do not think the Palestine solidarity movement, as such, is "anti-Semitic", that most marchers are, or (least of all) that supporting the Palestinians is in some sense anti-Semitic by default. I also hope that people who disagree with me and AWL in programmatic terms about the issue would agree that any expression of anti-Semitism, however formulated and whatever its roots, needs to be explicitly challenged. I know many of them do. But if we're going to discuss these issues seriously, as I think we should, then we should take the time to spell out what we actually think, which I've tried to do here.

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DR

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PS: Barry, I'd like to reply to you on Zionism here too, but I feel I've already gone on too long! We'll continue by email, maybe.

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PPS: Sorry for doing this weird thing and separating my paragraphs with hyphens; I can't get the HTML coding to work for some reason, so when I posted the comment it showed up as continuous text with no paragraph breaks, and this was the only way I could find of actually breaking it up to make it (hopefully, marginally) more readable.

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